Irwandi Yusuf became Aceh’s governor in December 2006. Before his victory, taking nearly 40 percent of the vote, Irwandi was a separatist rebel with the Free Aceh Movement [GAM], which has been fighting for Acehnese independence for 30 years. Now steering a province that has not only been devastated by natural disaster but still reconciling from a brutal civil war, Irwandi finds himself working with the very people he once fought against. FRONTLINE/World reporter Orlando de Guzman asks the rebel-turned-governor about how he plans to bring reconciliation now that there's peace.
Q: Orlando de Guzman: So, how many weeks have you been governor now? You were sworn in February?
A: Governor Irwandi: Tomorrow it will be exactly three months.
Q: Are you enjoying it?
A: Suffering from it.
Q: What do you hate most about it?
A: I guess starting all over again from scratch [in Aceh]. New laws, a new situation coming out of a very bad situation. So, there are many hassles. It is also difficult to adjust the mindset of the people when they have been living in conflict for 30 years. And it is very difficult to convince those in the green -- the military -- that Aceh is now peaceful.
Q: The military is still very suspicious?
A: Yes, and they are launching an intelligence operation right now, although I have revealed it. I know for them, it's about losing power. And that’s not easy, right?
Q: They don’t feel completely comfortable about giving up Aceh?
A: It’s not about giving up. [It’s about] when you lose something -- not necessarily territory – but the benefit of being in a conflict zone. That’s the problem.
“People expected me to change the cabinet, but I didn’t. During the first morning call I said, “I don’t want to replace any one of you because to me you are all creative, trustworthy, and diligent. Until you prove yourself otherwise, I will not change you.”
Q: What are you trying to accomplish in your first few months as governor?
A: The vice governor and myself are the only new [officials] in the system. We have planted ourselves in the old system, and we need to adjust it. So, first we have to adjust.
People expected me to change the cabinet, but I didn’t. During the first morning call I said, “I don’t want to replace any one of you because to me you are all creative, trustworthy, and diligent. Until you prove yourself otherwise, I will not change you.“
I don’t want to create revolutionary change because it won’t be conducive as governor. I don’t want to create enemies. I will use them, and I want them to prove themselves. And then gradual changes will be made.
Q: Is there less freedom in the corridors of power here?
A: You know the irony? I fought for the independence of Aceh. But now I am losing my own private independence.
Q: How is your life now?
A: My life is just like a combatant. I'm not a free person anymore. I can’t walk alone. No matter how much I say, “Don't escort me,” they keep escorting me.
I can’t go to sleep anytime I want. If they are still guests in my home, [I must entertain them, and] these are often people from the village and they [stay] until late at night. I have to wake up really early in the morning. What kind of freedom is this? No freedom at all. But we call it sacrifice.
Q: Do you feel a lot of pressure because the expectations of the people are very high?
A: I enjoy the suffering, feeling the pressure, the demands. And I knew that even before I ran, I would win. I told the people, “If I run, I will win.” And then I will be under tremendous pressure to fulfill their dreams -- not my dream -- the peoples’ dreams. They have the right to dream, because they have suffered for the last 130 years.
Q: In an interview in the Jakarta Post a few weeks ago, you mentioned that you didn't promise to bring the Acehnese to heaven, you promised to bring them out of hell. What exactly did you mean?
A: You can seek the meaning of that for yourself. I don't promise, for example, to make everyone become rich or free from suffering. But I can provide a way for them to get on the right track, so they might decide for themselves and to see a way to be prosperous. But if they want to jump back to hell? It’s up to them.
Q: If Aceh is not governed properly, could the situation unravel quickly again into conflict?
A: Not that easily. It depends on the command.
Q: It depends on you?
A: Not necessarily me. If the government delivers what they have promised in the MOU [the Memorandum of Understanding outlined in the peace agreement] and in the laws and governance of Aceh -- and it seems to me that the government is delivering -- there is no worry that the Acehnese will rebel again. But people have to wait, because this is not about flipping a coin. This is not about overnight. This is a very big, long-term project to bring Acehnese into prosperity. And like I said, I started almost from the scratch, and I won the full support and commitment of the Jakarta government.
Q: There’s has been conflict with GAM [Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or Free Aceh Movement] since 1976. After so much time, isn’t it difficult to regain trust and rebuild the basic foundations that can move a society forward?
A: Yes, it is difficult, but also not so difficult. If you put a sin in salt, Acehnese people will be very angry For now, I think we are on the right track. The GAM fighters are very professional. They fight when they have to fight and when their leadership says, “Now peace,” they [keep the] peace. The transfer from war to peace in Aceh was very abrupt. There have been some minor incidents, but if you compare the peace process in other parts of the world, the peace process in Aceh is miraculous.
Q: Why do you think it's been possible here?
A: Because we are so disciplined. If the leadership says, “Fight,” we fight. When the leadership says, “Now, we have peace,” we are at peace.
Q: Do you think the government will be disciplined in keeping the peace?
A: So far, so disciplined. Aceh is no longer only under Jakarta’s eye but also the eyes of the world.
Q: I have seen dramatic changes in Aceh in the four or five years that I've been reporting here. It has really opened up to the international community.
A: In the past, Aceh opened itself up as wide as possible to world. But the government closed it during the conflict and martial law. Now it's open again. Do you know who holds the key to opening Aceh?
Q: The tsunami.
A: Yes. The tsunami holds the key.
“In the election for the district heads, nine out of the 17 seats were won by members from GAM. The people of Aceh feel pleased about this. The people who are most likely to bring change to Aceh are from GAM and those who supported the election.”
Q: The tsunami grabbed everyone’s attention and forced a peace deal, but as people move away from the memories of the tsunami, will old habits return?
A: If both sides remain committed to the peace process, then no such thing will happen in the future. But if one side or, worse, if both sides violate the agreement, then it is business as before.
In the election for the district heads, nine out of the 17 seats were won by members from GAM. The people of Aceh feel pleased about this. It takes time. But the people who are most likely to bring change to Aceh are from GAM and those who supported the election.
Q: What was life like for you during the conflict?
A: I don't know how to say because I'm fit in all weather. But I am sorry to say that I had to spend some time in prison during the conflict. I think if I had been out of prison during the martial law, the color and the tone of the war in the field would have been very different.
Q: Where are we going?
Q: The police headquarters?
A: Yeah. This is the city police headquarters. Not Aceh police headquarters.
Q: Is this where you were taken when you were arrested?
A: Yes, after my arrest, I was detained in Jakarta for one month; then they brought me here.
Q: You experienced torture in this building?
A: Yes, yes, in this building. In that room [he gestures], in the interrogation room.
Q: Do you care to tell me what happened?
A: Interrogation. That’s normal during the war.
Q: What did they do to you?
A: Whatever they liked. Kicking, beating, logging. When I say logging, it doesn't mean cutting logs but beating with a log. [Laughs]
Q: You laugh about these experiences. Is that because you're governor now?
A: No. There is nothing to avenge. I take it as part of the struggle -- the price you have to pay. I don't take it personally.
Q: A lot of people have high hopes that you will be able to bring certain people to justice, because they believe that you are a victim of torture, as well.
A: I know how to do that. There is no rush for that. If you want to catch a bird in the tree, [don’t] shake the tree too early, it will get away. Climb [the tree] slowly.
Q: When will be the right time to bring the Indonesian military to justice?
A: I don't know. But there’s going to be justice. But it is difficult. It involves many things. You have to identify the bad guy -- his rank, his name, his unit. It is difficult. So, let’s put aside the difficult thing first, and do the easy part.
Q: To bring the economy back?
A: Yes, the economy comes first. I try to avoid any controversy at this time. When the economy is stable and the politics are stable, then we'll proceed with that.
Q: Are the politics in Aceh stable?
A: Yes, until at least until 2009. It is up to the Acehnese people to form a local parliament with local parties.
Q: Will not solving these human rights cases any time soon, will that…
A:Be a problem? No. It won't be a problem.
“For most people, they think I am the strongest. I am this. I am that. But actually, I'm just an ordinary human being. They put too much hope in me. That is good but I can’t deliver everything at the same time. So I try to deliver bit by bit.”
Q: These people are looking for justice.
A: If you ask them if they are looking for justice, they will say, “Yes, for justice.” But they also know that justice is not possible at this time, no matter how they want it. If you ask them, “Do you want a better economy?” They will say, “Yes.” It depends what you ask. For most people, they think I am the strongest. I am this. I am that. But actually, I'm just an ordinary human being. They put too much hope in me. That is good but I can’t deliver everything at the same time. So I try to deliver bit by bit.
Q: Can you tell me any stories you remember from meeting people in prison? What did you do with your days? What did you do with yourself?
A:I was waiting hour after hour. I was very glad if someone came to visit me because I had the chance to get out of the cell. If there's a visitor coming, they will remove you from the cell and let you sit here or at that front porch.
Q: Who were you in prison with?
A: Mostly GAM people at that time.
Q: Were you still fighting a revolution inside the prison cells?
A: We had an intelligence center in the cell, yes.
Q: You were running an intelligence operation from your cell?
A: From my cell.
Q: How would you do that?
A:With a hidden hand phone. It was risky. You can lose your life if you get caught.
Q: Where would you hide your cell phone?
A: In the groin.
Q: And they never searched you?
A: Never. Once, they found the reserve battery. I was lucky that time, because I was out of the cell. My lawyer came, so I was with him. When the police searched the room, they found the reserve battery and asked my roommates, “Whose battery is this?” No one admitted, of course. No one confessed. So, they were almost all brutalized. I heard that because the place I was with my lawyer was separated only by plywood. I sat very close to the lawyer, I quickly grabbed the hand phone and transferred it to him -- put it in his lap. Then I asked permission to [return] to the cell, to avoid the beating the rest of the prisoners received. When I was back in the room, the police asked me, “Whose battery is this?” I said, “My battery.” “Where is your phone?” “My phone was seized in Jakarta.” “So why the hell is the battery here?” “Because the police didn’t take it. They left it in my pocket, [and] I forgot to give it to my wife.” Then everyone was safe.
Q: Was it normal for them to beat you?
A: Well, I got the least beating compared to the others.
Q: Did you ever think you would make it out of prison?
A: Before the tsunami, I had promised myself that I wouldn’t spend more than two years in prison. No matter how, I would get out. I tried in July 2004 -- I had my friends smuggle two weapons into the prison.
Q: Two guns?
A: Two guns. But because it was close to Indonesian Independence Day, in August, they had increased security outside the jail, and across the cities and villages. So, I couldn’t escape, and I sent back the weapons to the outside.
Q: You were going to shoot your way out of prison?
A: If necessary; also, my people were ready. They had hired two cars, four motorbikes and two boats; and they had many machine guns. I was afraid for the prison guards, who were all friends of mine. I was afraid that my friends outside the jail would shoot them because they didn’t know how close we were. That became my nightmare. So I cancelled [the escape]. I decided [to attempt another escape] in November. But again I couldn't find a way to get out. So, I left the idea alone for a while.
But [again] I promised [myself that I would] not stay here more than two years. And at that time, during the presidential elections, SBY [current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] promised the people of Aceh if he were elected, he would find a peaceful solution to Aceh. I thought, Let's wait until this guy becomes president. And again, instead of making a peace solution, SBY extended the military operation in Aceh. If he didn't change his mind before the New Year, then I would break away in January.
Q: January 2005?
A: Yes, 2005. Then on the 26 of December 2004, the tsunami [hit], and I escaped unhurt, without violating any laws. I didn’t have to kill anyone. That’s the end of the story.
Q: I was here a few days after the tsunami, and I immediately heard about your miraculous escape from prison. How did that happen?
A: When there is chance to escape, you escape. But many perished in the tsunami because they didn’t have that chance. First of all, I knew the tsunami was coming. So when it did come, I was ready mentally. Most GAM prisoners were those that ended up as survivors. I think being calm, cool and confident is very important. We are used to stressful situations. We can sustain sudden stresses then make a quick decision. That’s why we didn’t panic.
Q: Did you know what was happening when water started to pour into the prison?
A: Yes. The size and length of the quake dictate the tsunami, and this was the third major earthquake of my life. And I knew this was the worst one yet. I called to the other people [in prison], to tell them about the tsunami: “You’ve got to prepare for the tsunami.” But I never thought it would be that big. I thought it would reach my prison only knee deep because it was away from the coast. I told people how to know when a tsunami is coming. I said, “You will see birds flying toward land and [hear] a roaring noise.” But in confinement, we could only see up to the sky. So when we saw the birds, I said, “tsunami.” And then suddenly there was a roaring sound. Many people ran toward the front gate, which was locked.
“I told people how to know when a tsunami is coming. “You will see birds flying toward land and [hear] a roaring noise.” So when we saw the birds, I said, “tsunami.” And then suddenly there was a roaring sound. Many people ran toward the front gate, which was locked”.
Q: Of course. You’re in a prison.
A: No. Usually, they did not lock the front gate. The guard at the gate is very friendly, especially to GAM. Even if the gate were open, we wouldn’t try to escape. When the guard saw many people running toward that gate, he didn’t know the tsunami was coming. He thought people were trying to escape, which is hell for him, so he shut the gate and locked it. I saw the rush in that direction and the jam, so I took a different path.
I went up to the prayer room on the second floor. In less than half a minute, the wall of the second floor began to collapse and water poured in. I was soaked and I climbed the iron bar [of the windows] to the ceiling to get as far away as possible from the water. When I reached the ceiling and water kept coming up and up, I thought, “This is the last day for me.” But when I touched the ceiling, it was made from asbestos. So I broke it and…
Q: And punched your way through?
A: Yes. I punched my way through, and then through to the tin roof. I sat there for two hours, waiting for the water to subside. Then, I tried to find my family about six kilometers away, in the worst hit part of the tsunami area. I didn’t find them. Apparently, they had moved to the next village -- and they all survived.
Q: During the conflict, how did you keep your identify hidden?
A: I just didn’t tell anyone. If you don’t tell anyone, then you keep it a secret.
Q: You didn&*8217;t even tell your wife?
A: She knew a little but not very much. Only the close elite of the GAM armed forces knew my role.
Q: And what was your role exactly?
A: Many roles.
Q: Like what?
A: Mostly focusing on intelligence operations.
Q: The Indonesian army had a very big Intelligence network here. I remember as a foreign journalist coming here and being followed…
A:They can only follow the obvious things -- like you. [laughs] They couldn't follow me because I'm not obvious.
Q: While the Indonesian military was running counter-intelligence operations, GAM had its own counter intelligence. Was it more effective than the army’s intelligence?
A:We were luckier because we operated in Aceh and, to some extent, a bit beyond Aceh. We were a small, efficient and committed people. Our operation didn't involve a large budget. What it did involve was much commitment to the cause.
Q: Do you think your cause has changed now?
A: It has changed a little. We used to seek territorial independence. We couldn't get that. Now the people have sovereignty. And there are many things -- for everyone, for the government of Indonesia -- still in the experimental stage. I hope it is a good experiment.
Q: After the tsunami, how did you avoid being sent back to prison?
A: I just walked away. Everyone had his own business that day -- it was just like doomsday, right?
Three days after the tsunami, I went to Biruen to see my mother. I got a night bus to Medan, [where] I stayed half a day and got a plane to Jakarta. No one can find you in Jakarta. From there, I went to Malaysia and then onto Europe.
“The military are now running a special intelligence operation here in Aceh. But I don't care. I'm not afraid. And actually, I have blown their secrets already. Even before they launch the operation, I have all the details in my hand.”
Q: Soon after you won the elections [in December 2006], local Indonesian newspapers wrote very differently about the results than reports in English-language newspapers such as the Jakarta Post. There was a sense of disappointment that GAM had won the elections. And listening to politicians in Jakarta, there was great caution around your victory. Do you think Jakarta is still suspicious of GAM’s victory?
A: The president, the vice president and the people around him are not suspicious. They are honest. But the lower ranks, with their own agendas, are suspicious. They are planning this and that. And the military are now running a special intelligence operation here in Aceh. But I don't care. I'm not afraid. And actually, I have blown their secrets already. Even before they launch the operation, I have all the details in my hand. And I know the name of the colonel who leads the intelligence operation here in Aceh.
Q: What kind of intelligence operation?
A: They perceive or suspect that myself and the vice governor will lead Aceh to a referendum.
Q: For independence?
A:Yes. It is very dangerous because it is also their [government intelligence] perception that my program of grassroots economic progress is part of a strategy to bring people along with me.
Q: Are you saying there are plans to topple or destabilize you and the vice governor?
A:Not destabilize. The perception is that I get along very well with the people, and they will follow me to the referendum for independence, which is very paranoid. For GAM, we fight like fighters. And we take peace very seriously when there is peace.
Q: Are you being paranoid?
A: Paranoid about what? I don't base my statement on paranoia. I have the proof -- all the documents of the intelligence operation are in my hand.
Q: What made you decide to run for governor?
A: It wasn’t my intention. But when I saw that no one else from GAM was running, then I had to step in.
Q: How is the shift for you from being an intelligence officer with GAM to working in the belly of the beast so to speak?
A:Not much different. It all involves dealing with people. Perhaps now it’s a little easier than it used to be. Now, I can deal with them openly, but the volume is so high.
Q: Today, you had a woman who was crying in your living room. Is it common for people to come to you directly?
A:They just come. You can see them at midnight.
Q: What sort of complaints do they bring to you?
A:It's all about life and the economy. Mostly economic. Ex-combatants in my hometown asking for jobs. If I had money, I would give it them to start a small business -- my own private money. But I don't have any, of course, to give them.
Q: Do you think that healing Aceh after years of conflict can be done by the economy alone?
A: First, let’s deal with the economy because this is a very basic need. People can’t think straight if they are hungry. And there is justice to be worked out properly. But let's start with the economy first to help settle people and get them thinking clearly.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by justice needs to be worked out?
A: Justice for past abuse of human rights -- people still want that. They want accountability. And Truth and reconciliation is part of the MOU, but it is yet to be done. I think a solution can come out of this truth and reconciliation process.
Q: I've met a lot of people in Aceh during last few days who have talked about their trauma and the need to find justice. Do you think that you will be able to deliver that to them?
A:In time, you know, properly. We don’t have to rush that now. I have an agenda. But people tend to be less patient than they should be. There will be a time – now, the government is still not stable. If your first action is human rights, those who are not happy with the situation will try to sabotage the boat. It's too risky. I’ve read enough about Indonesian history to know that as soon as you begin fighting the military -- one of the most ironclad institutions in Indonesia -- they will fight back. Let’s try to strengthen society first. Once that is strong, we can proceed.
Q: What pushed you to become part of the GAM struggle?
A:Some GAM activists joined the struggle because their families had fallen victim to the brutality of the military, but not my family. My father worked for the government. My brother and sisters did the same. They were mostly professional, educated. I myself was a state employee. But I joined the struggle because I was aware that Aceh was a sovereign country -- already independent -- long before Indonesia existed. And Aceh was being treated improperly by the state. That is why I joined the fight, and now there is a solution -- we follow the peace process.
Q: Aceh’s history during the past five years has gone from one sweeping change to the next. From being a very difficult place to work as a foreign journalist, to this massive unimaginable catastrophe, to opening up as a region, to peace. What do you make of all that?
A:It is amazing. If you see the root of the conflict here and if you open a textbook, you will see there are two kinds of conflict -- identity conflict and distribution conflict. Let me elaborate. Aceh is an example of identity conflict. Aceh's people lost their identity to Indonesia. The Acehnese are no longer Acehnese. That is identity conflict. You can call this [loss of] sovereignty, as well. While the distribution conflict is about justice and equality. It’s about the economy and enjoying a share in that. Sometimes people try to accept the loss of identity. But if there is also a distribution conflict, it opens the gates for people to look deeply into the past and what defines them. Then, they find out that their [true] identity is not like the identity [that is being imposed on them]; they say, “Lets get our identity back.” This leads to conflict and Aceh is a good example of that.
Q: Injustice plays a big part in conflict.
A:Yes. It opens the gate for the people to scrutinize themselves. Why should we be like this? Why should we live this way? It’s like opening up Pandora’s box.
Q: Do you think the people who are now asking for accountability from the military and for justice are opening up Pandora's box?
A:No, because, as I told you, they know how to behave. They know when and how to ask.
Q: What if they keep asking and their voices are never heard?
A: I know the Aceh people. I know when they will ask. And I know how they will ask. And I know to what extent it is acceptable for them. I can’t answer the “If” -- there is no if.